We've spent some time on Wacom's first-ever hybrid tablet -- the Bamboo Pen & Touch which, surprise, surprise, features independent stylus and multitouch finger inputs. Multitouch-equipped computer users may not be as stoked, but let's not forget those aspiring artists who are stuck with an old-school trackpad or a desktop sans touchscreen. Compared to previous pen-only models the $99 Pen & Touch should make life easier for tablet newbies, especially by eliminating the hassle of constantly switching between the stylus and the mouse. No, really: using the stylus as a mouse is just plain torture as the tablet's drawing area is mapped with the screen, which equates to extra hard work when you try to point your stylus at tiny buttons (you can switch to "Mouse mode" in preferences, but that's still extra donkey work). Do read on for some hands-on thoughts.
Multitouch trackpad -- rough to the touch
We had a go with this capacitive tablet's touch mode on both Snow Leopard and Windows 7. While the gestures worked as promised in Wacom's demo video, some failed to work in certain areas of each OS. For instance, on a MacBook and Windows 7 touchscreen device you can natively pinch-zoom the file thumbnails, but this wasn't possible on our Mac with the Bamboo. Similarly, the rotation gesture only worked in Preview on Snow Leopard, but not under Windows. Needless to say this was rather annoying and should've been streamlined before launch. Another issue is the friction against our skin: the tablet's active area is covered by rubber-like material, giving a squeaky touch even with just a moderate pressure applied. It's like petting a dry dolphin. See for yourself in the video below.
Pen and no paper
Technically the Bamboo Pen & Touch has a better pen mode than both the original Bamboo tablet ($75) and the current Bamboo Pen ($69) -- same pen active area size, same 2540 dpi resolution, same pen form factor (with eraser feel and two customizable buttons) but pen pressure levels have been doubled up to 1024. After some doodling in Photoshop we found the same surface that was too rubbery for our fingers to be slightly too slippery for the stylus, lacking the advertised "paper-like tablet surface" as found on the original Bamboo. You might not find this an issue though -- some of us at Engadget do prefer slipperiness like that of Wacom's Cintiq. There's not much else to be found on the tablet: four customizable buttons (for mouse clicks, touch toggle, application launch etc.), an LED indicator (dim white in standby, bright white in touch mode and orange in pen mode) and a fabric tug to store your stylus. It's also nice to see that Wacom's killed off the circular trackpad that we hardly ever used on the original Bamboo.
As mentioned earlier, we expected the Pen & Touch to increase productivity by combining two types of input onto one peripheral. We assume most tablet users would be using graphics suites like Photoshop and CorelDRAW, so in this case the pen mode would obviously be used for drawing while the touch mode takes care of zooming, rotation and scrolling on the canvas. This worked out to be pretty handy for us in Photoshop, plus we found it much easier to use our fingers to navigate around the toolboxes, as well as accessing the brush menu using the right-click and scrolling gestures. Great potential, only to be spoiled by the less-than-ideal surface textures in each input mode.
Wacom should be commended for bringing finger tracking to its product line, which has clearly achieved its goal of making our lives easier, but it's a shame that it hasn't got the surface texture and gesture drivers quite right. The rubbery touch is almost enough to force us back to the good old combination of tablet and mouse. We assume the Bamboo Pen might not suffer from the Pen & Touch's slippery problem, but if it does then it's best to get the old Bamboo -- probably only from eBay these days. It'll be cheaper too.